An onlooker photographs a montage of the Kama Sutra. Photo: Getty
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Why I changed my mind about porn

A few years ago, I argued against the idea that porn was hijacking our sexuality. Now, as a women's centre tries to ban my opponent, I wonder - are they scared that if people listen to Gail Dines, their minds might be changed too?

“Isn’t Sarah Ditum the feminist who hates Gail Dines?”

I am Sarah Ditum the feminist. I do not hate Gail Dines, so I was a little taken aback to see this statement on a comment thread. I knew where it had come from, however: four years ago, Dines and I took part in a debate titled “Is Porn Hijacking Our Sexuality?” Dines, a veteran anti-porn feminist, argued for yes, and I put the case for no. In the end, I got the impression that we’d both slightly wrong-footed each other: I didn’t use the insinuations of sexlessness and prudery she’d anticipated, and her argument contained all the economic and ethical subtlety I’d foolishly assumed it would lack. The debate dragged out for over a year, then collapsed unsatisfyingly, and I wrote a grumpy blogpost about it which led lots of people (most of them, it has to be said, men) to declare me the winner.

I didn’t feel exactly like a winner, however. I knew that there were parts of the argument I’d fudged, especially (and shamefully) around the racism and sexism that are embedded in the grammar of pornography. I began to suspect that it was futile to criticise Dines’ use of cohort studies to demonstrate connections between porn use and misogynist attitudes – repeating over and over that there is no control group of men not exposed to the insistent chauvinism of pornography is, ultimately, not very convincing or reassuring. Though it seemed callow to admit it, I’d seen things in my research that shocked and upset me – real penetration of real women causing real pain. And there was one more thing, which happened more gradually: I heard from friends about the boyfriend who wanted to choke them, or the one who slapped them about in bed, or pressured them to do anal, or wanted to film it all. The pornographic vocabulary of sex as the violent debasement of the female body had seeped out from screens and into the lives of the women I knew.

Despite the official title of the debate, I’d been addressing a slightly different question all along: essentially, I was asking “Why should we be able to censor anything?” Dines had a different question too. Hers, paraphrased, was probably something like this: “Why should the pornographers be able to repackage and retail sexuality as violence?” Her answer is that they should not be able to, and her solution doesn’t involve censorship at all: as she explains in her documentary Pornland, it’s one of public education and grassroots resistance to the porn industry, enabling individuals to discover “a sexuality… that is life-loving, life-affirming, and that we ourselves authored, not the pornographers”. It is irrelevant here whether or not you find that hopeful prospectus plausible (and I do: if humans have any power at all, it is surely the power to shape our own culture). What matters is that it is a politics of invention, not repression.

In fact, rather than advocating for censorship, Dines has become the victim of it. On 21 February, a screening of Pornland organised by the group Decoding Porn should have taken place at the Women’s Community Center of Central Texas, Austin. It never happened, because the Community Center cancelled the booking on the now numbingly familiar yet nonetheless depressing grounds that it would violate a “safe space.” In a statement, the venue explained: “we had some folks here in the Austin community say they were deeply uncomfortable with Dines’ work. Our staff had not been aware of Dines’ history of anti-trans and anti-sex worker rhetoric, and we were grateful to be educated.” And gallingly, my part of the debate with Dines was used by the Center to support its decision. I had thought for a long time about whether to ask for it to be unpublished, and decided that the embarrassment of having my mistakes on show was better than the dishonesty of redacting. I hadn’t considered that by not censoring myself, I might give occasion to someone else’s silencing.

Dines firmly rejects the Center’s claims: “I am critical of the johns,  the pimps and the porn producers and distributors, but not the women who end up in the industry through poverty, racism, violence and trafficking,” she says. “It is like calling Marx capitalist-phobic and refusing to engage with his arguments about the nature of economic exploitation. Also, I have never ever said anything that could be considered hateful of trans people… I am president of Stop Porn Culture and we welcome anyone who has a feminist anti-porn position.” Nevertheless, the smear had done its job: Austin had lost its opportunity to watch Pornland and respond to the arguments on their merits. If the person staking a position is deemed unspeakable, no answer is required. The safe space of the Center must be purged of dissent; meanwhile, none of its employees seemed to wonder whether an industry in which women are called “bitches” and “sluts” and ritually pummelled for men’s entertainment can be any kind of “safe space”.

There’s a tendency for the liberal left – particularly men of the liberal left – to see the shutting down of radical feminist speakers as a punishment of deliciously Dantean aptness. Meanie feminists tried to take away the porn, and now the meanie feminists have been played at their own game and beaten. But feminists have rarely demanded that the pornographic material they criticise be banned. No More Page 3 asked The Sun’s editor to reconsider an antiquated, embarrassing part of the newspaper. Lose the Lads’ Mags suggested that, maybe, boob-baring models were not the thing to have smiling down from supermarket shelves. Had Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon’s 1988 Porn Ordinance been adopted, pornography would have been redefined as sex discrimination and women who could demonstrate that they had been harmed by it would have been able to sue the makers for damages. All this is very different to the claim that a feminist critique of pornography should not be shown in a women’s centre because some folks have alleged that the maker has said some things not even contained in the film.

Even when it came to destructive direct action, anti-porn feminists could be scrupulous about preserving their opponents’ “speech”. In 1980, artist Nikki Craft destroyed a set of photos called The Incredible Case of the Stack O' Wheat Murders in the University of California Santa Cruz Special Collections Library. These sepiatone pictures all featured a naked woman, posed as though murdered, in the middle of a staged crime scene. Next to each beautiful corpse was set a stack of whole wheat pancakes, like the signature of a whimsical serial killer; for blood, the photographer substituted graphic pools of chocolate syrup. And each set came with a packet of pancake mix and a can of chocolate syrup – the supposedly witty implication being that the purchaser now has the materials to create his (of course his) own crime scene. Just add murdered woman. Craft brilliantly turned this violence back on the prints, tearing them up and dousing them with the syrup. She also, at her own expense, purchased a replacement set for the library. The protest was made, and nothing was lost.

The actions of Craft, Dworkin, Mackinnon and Dines are defined by their urgency. Anti-porn feminism recognises a link between the propaganda of sexual violence and its practice, and stopping porn is understood to be essential in ending the rapes, killings and torture that men practice against women. These campaigners believe that lives are at stake – and even so, they are somehow less censorious, more open to dialogue, more creative than those who now police the “safe spaces.”  In these spaces, everyone must be warmly welcomed and intellectually unchallenged, except of course for feminists speaking against male violence. One wonders exactly why Pornland was such an intimidating prospect for supporters of the sex industry in Austin. Perhaps it is a perverse testament to Dines: maybe her opponents know that, if viewers approach with a readiness to debate in good faith, they might, like me, end up changing their minds.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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